Parque de doña Casilda Bilbao
Photograph: Jon Chica /

The 25 best things to do in Bilbao

Ready for delicious pintxos, old town sights and fantastic arts and culture? Welcome to Bilbao

Laura Menéndez
Translated by: Laura Menéndez

Back in the day, Bilbao sometimes got overlooked as a near-perfect holiday destination, in favour of its more well-known neighbours like Barca and Madrid. But eventually the world caught on to its brilliance (obviously), and now tourists know it as one of Spain’s most essential cities. It’s a buzzing, gleaming city, as suited to a casual wonder and explore as it is to a strictly packed three-day itinerary. 

From its glorious Guggenheim to its tasty pintxos (Bilbao’s tapas), Bilbao strikes a balance between a number of contrasts; cosmopolitan and traditional, wild and super chilled, sophisticated and daring. People often have to choose between here and San Sebastian, but if you’re after a proper city break, Bilbao is the one. From culture to food and markets to viewpoints, here are the best things to do in brilliant Bilbao right now. 

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Things to do in Bilbao

1. The Old Town

What is it? A picturesque, cobbled-street kind of town, and Bilbao’s oldest neighbourhood. 

Why go? As the oldest part of Bilbao (founded 700 years ago), this is where it all began, and the neighbourhood still rings with the same traditional charm it always has. But it’s far, far from being a tame sort of place; the old town is alive with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops, and new spots are popping up all the time. It rides with the times. Come here for a pintxo at the lovely Santa Maria, sip on glasses of wine at Los Jardines bar, and take your time exploring the trinket shops in the area. The old town in Bilbao is also called the ‘siete calles’, which means seven streets in English, and it’s a must-see in Bilbao. 

2. Guggenheim Museum

What is it? One of the most important cutting-edge contemporary art museums in Spain

Why go? For travellers and locals, art lovers and curious minds, the Guggenheim is unmissable. Despite being barely open 25 years, the Guggenheim has become a staple landmark in Bilbao and an essential point of reference for global contemporary art. The experience starts by simply walking towards the brilliantly odd-shaped, metal-looking façade: everything around it is art, from the building itself to the two famous statues outside the museum: Puppy the dog and Mamá the spider. Once inside, the breathtaking spaces host appropriately spectacular exhibitions.


3. Bilbao's bridges

What are they? Connecting both sides of the Nirvión estuary that cuts the Bilbao in half, the city’s bridges are a great way to get acquainted with the Basque capital.

Why go? Bilbao has grown around its river and the bridges are essential to the city’s functioning, but you can also appreciate Bilbao’s historical evolution through its bridges. From the fourteenth-century San Antón bridge and the recently-opened Frank Gehry to the Calatrava-designed Zubizuri and the Puente de Deusto (a drawbridge that opens up the city centre to vessel traffic), bridges of all kinds connect Bilbao’s two shores.

4. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

What is it? One of the best art museums in town.

Why go? Even before the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s art gallery scene was excellent. The Bellas Artes Museum opened its doors at the start of the twentieth century and is home to fascinating collections of nationally renowned painters like Goya, El Greco, Murillo and Gauguin, and works from other influential Spanish and Basque artists. It might be a little older and less famous than the shiny, modern Gugg, but the Museo de Bellas Artes continues to delight art enthusiasts.


5. Hucha de los Txikiteros

What is it? A piggybank to throw your spare coins into at the end of the day.

Why go? Txikiteros are groups of people who frequent the old town bars and drink txikitos (small glasses of wine). Before making their way home, they approach this ‘piggybank’ in Pelota Street, marked by an ‘x’ on the floor. Here they place their spare coins, and every October 11, the money is collected and donated to charity. It’s also the only place in the old town from where the Basílica de la Virgen de Begoña is visible.

6. Mercado de la Ribera

What is it? Europe’s biggest covered market.

Why go? Basque cuisine is admired worldwide, and this market is one of its hallowed grounds. Anything can be found here, from fresh regional produce shining under the light of the market’s stained-glass roof to a hospitality area where visitors can experience local cuisine while enjoying views of the river. Oh, and don’t miss the chance for a slow jazz boogie in the new bar downstairs.


7. Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Begoña

What is it? The basilica dedicated to Bizkaia’s patron saint.

Why go? Legend says the basilica was erected on the very spot where the Virgin Begoña once appeared. Dubbed a ‘temple of the people’ (because its construction was funded through community donations), the late-Gothic style basilica took more than a century to build. The big feast days are August 15 and October 11, when believers visit to worship the ‘amaxu’ ('mother' in Basque). Be warned: there are 316 steps to conquer before reaching the basilica.

8. Plaza Nueva

What is it? A flea market where you can buy and exchange pretty much anything you can imagine.

Why go? There’s something very special about Plaza Nueva. Every Sunday, the square hosts a market that smells like old times and nostalgia – perhaps because most of the furniture, books, albums or clothes sold here are, indeed, rather old. On a morning walk, you can also pop by the flower market on El Arenal, with all its vibrant colours and delicious smells.


9. Zorrotzaurre

What is it? An old industrial area now a manmade island with loads of events and buzz.

Why go? Zorratzaurre has become the Basque country’s very own Manhattan. Starting as a peninsula, it has become an island – and it’s packed with stuff that keeps the area vibrant and buzzing. Every Sunday morning, there’s an open market called Open Your Ganbara in the old Artiach Factory, where spaces like Pabellón 6 also organise theatre shows. This ‘underground’ neighbourhood will undoubtedly have a big say in Bilbao’s future.

10. Riverside docks

What is it? Docks where people gather to have a drink and enjoy riverside views.

Why go? When the sun goes down and people start roaming the streets looking for fun, here’s where they find it. Whether you’re after a glass of wine at the end of the day or a spot for a vibrant weekend night out, the docks are the place to be. There are two top-notch, totally atmospheric options for both nibbles and blending in seamlessly with the locals: Muelle Marzana, behind Mercado de la Rivera, and Muelle de Ripa, in front of the Arriaga Theatre.


What is it? A circular kiosk dedicated to music.

Why go? Walking through the big trees that populate El Arenal, you’ll find a small and quirky kiosk. The circular shape with no pillars and huge windows provides an uninterrupted view of the Art-Decó stage and its performers. Be sure to check out the underground café and the Sunday performances by local musicians.

What is it? A majestic neo-baroque theatre.

Why go? Teatro Arriaga is one of the most majestic buildings in all of Bilbao. Inspired by the Paris Opera, it’s dedicated to local musician Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, generally known as the ‘Spanish Mozart’. The theatre is known for having suffered various mishaps (it burnt down in 1914 and flooded in 1983) but, despite all that, it still boasts one of the city’s biggest arts and culture programmes. If you want to unmask all the quirks and secrets of Arriaga’s 125-year history, the theatre’s guided tours are the way to go.


What is it? Bilbao’s first skyscraper.

Why go? As the first building in Bilbao to stand higher than 40 meters, back in the 1940s the Rascacielos de Bailén was an architectural marvel. These days, with its nineteenth-century Chicago-style design, it’s considered quite an odd building – but it’s worth visiting if only for its rooftop, which offers spectacular views of the old town.

14. Parque Casilda Iturrizar

What is it? The city-centre park.

Why go? There’s no better way to get away from the city without actually leaving it than by visiting Bilbao’s lungs: Casilda Iturrizar. Featuring several sports areas, a fountain that hosts water shows, and a music pergola, people from Bilbao have named it ‘el Parque de Los Patos’ (the duck’s park) because its beautiful pond is home to several bird species. It’s also perfect for a relaxed, shaded picnic.


What is it? A mirador offering peerless views of the city.

Why go? Monte Artxanda has long been one of the locals favourite places to spend their free time. A cable car, built at the start of the twentieth century, remains the easiest way to access the top of the hill. Once at the top, the first thing to do is enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city before settling down with a Txakoli con gilda in one of the nearby restaurants.

16. Vizcaya Bridge

What is it? The world’s first metal-structured ferry bridge.

Why go? The Vizcaya Bridge is one of the most remarkable constructions in northern Spain. With more than a century of history behind it, this was a real engineering milestone. It can be crossed by car, foot, bike or train, but our top tip is to walk along the 50-metre-high footbridge and take in the views of the Nervión river and the Cantabrian sea.


17. Grúa Carola

What is it? A crane belonging to the old Euskalduna shipyard.

Why go? So the story goes, one of the most beautiful women in Bilbao used to cross the estuary on a boat every day, driving all the shipyard workers mad. A foreman saw the effect this woman had on his workers, and decided to buy her a car so she wouldn’t have to cross the estuary every day. The woman’s name was Carola, and this crane was named after her.

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What is it? An enormous mural painted on a building in Olabeaga.

Why go? Soñar means ‘to dream’ in Spanish. Very few words, no matter the language, have the same impact as soñar and this mural invites you to close your eyes and simply believe. Created by an artist group called SpY, the mural became one of Bilbao’s most iconic landmarks overnight and gave life to the Olabeaga neighbourhood. The mural is visible from many places in the city, but its size and characteristic font make seeing it up close worthwhile.


19. Estadio de San Mamés

What is it? The home of one of the world’s most iconic football teams.

Why go? A place of worship of a different kind, San Mamés is a holy site for those who worship at the altar of Athletic Bilbao. Fans gather every other week in the hope of seeing their beloved team win at a stadium that blends modern facilities with traditional passion. And even if you don’t happen to be in the city when there’s a match on, the stadium has its own museum where you can learn about the legendary club’s history and successes.

20. Parque Etxebarria

What is it? Bilbao’s biggest park.

Why go? Located on the surrounding hillsides, Parque Etxebarria offers amazing views out over the city. To get to the top, you can take an elevator, drive or climb the 300 steps from Plaza Unamuno. The park still features an original factory chimney symbolising the city’s industrial past, though it’s better known for its huge patches of grass and picnic areas. It’s the perfect place to get away from the city noise and watch the sunset behind the hills.


21. Gran Via

What is it? The city’s main street.

Why go? Bilbao’s Gran Vía is one of the most beautiful boulevards in Spain. Magnificent buildings, shops, trees and bars full of delicious pintxos are all part of its beauty. Despite being the city’s most important street, a significant part of it is restricted to pedestrian access: there’s no traffic from Plaza Elíptica to Plaza Circular, so strolling is a total delight. The boulevard’s full name (Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro) is in honour of Bilbao’s founder, so be sure to look out for the statue of Don Diego López holding the ‘Carta Constitucional down the boulevard’s eastern end.

22. Azkuna Zentroa

What is it? A cultural and leisure space in Bilbao’s city centre.

Why go? Housed in La Alhóndiga, a ground-breaking modernist building, Azkuna Zentroa was initially designed as a wine storage facility. Architect Philippe Stark reinvented the space into the leisure and cultural hotspot it is today: an original and dreamy structure where more than 43 pillars take you on a journey through the relationships between art, culture and everyday life.


23. England in Bilbao

What is it? An English-style street with facades painted in lively colours.

Why go? One of Bilbao’s best-kept secrets, Zubeola Avenue in the Irala neighbourhood features a mosaic of colourful facades. While some of the houses are built in a French style, the English-style houses are better known. The neighbourhood emerged after a local baker wanted to improve working-class living conditions, so he reproduced housing styles of other European countries. A century later, the houses are no less remarkable.

24. Puerto Viejo de Algorta

What is it? A traditional fisherman’s neighbourhood.

Why go? Located in Getxo, a village 10-minute drive from Bilbao, Puerto Viejo is a unique and picturesque sight. Once a fishing village, nowadays it serves as a leisure hotspot where people often eat quisquillas and caracolinos while enjoying the views of Ereaga beach. Narrow streets, white houses, small squares and secret corners make it one of Bizkaia’s most beautiful neighbourhoods. The Basque Country has long had strong connections with the sea, so walking through Puerto Viejo can feel like travelling back in time.


25. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

What is it? A small chapel on an island, accessible only by a bridge.

Why go? Gaztelugatxe might be best known to some for its role as Dragonstone – home of Daenerys Targaryen – in Game of Thrones. For everyone else, it’s still the Basque Country’s crown jewel: an absolute must if you’re in Bilbao and the most visited tourist attraction in the city after the Guggenheim Museum. A tiny island linked to the cliffs by a narrow stone bridge, the chapel at the top is only accessible via 241 stairs. Once you’ve made it to the top, ring the bell three times and make a wish. Trust us; it is worth the effort.

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